The recent Facebook and Cambridge Analytica fiasco deepened public concern about the political power and allegiances of Big Tech corporations. Soon after the story went viral, 3,100 Google employees submitted a petition to Google CEO Sundar Pichai protesting Google’s involvement in a Pentagon program called “Project Maven”.
Last week, the Tech Worker’s Coalition launched a petition protesting tech industry participation in development for war, urging Google to break its contract with the Department of Defense (DoD). Will Pichai respond?
Google has a lot to answer for. In March 2016, then US Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, tapped then Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt to chair the DoD’s new Innovation Advisory Board. The Board would give the Pentagon access to “the brightest technical minds focused on innovation” – culled from Silicon Valley.
More recently, details about Project Maven emerged. The project uses machine learning and deep learning to develop an AI-based computer vision solution for military drone targeting. This innovative system turns reams of visual data – obtained from surveillance drones – into “actionable intelligence at insight speed.”
Because there are many more hours of surveillance footage than a team of humans can view, most of the footage cannot be evaluated by Pentagon workers. Using AI, Project Maven steps in to make sure no footage goes unwatched. The AI performs analytics of drone footage to categorize, sift and identify the items the DoD is looking for – cars, people, objects and so on – and flag the sought-after items for a human to review. The project has been successful, and the Pentagon is now looking to make a “Project Maven factory”.
Reports of Google’s participation in Project Maven comes amidst news they are bidding alongside Amazon, IBM and Microsoft for a $10 billion “one big cloud” servicing contract with the Pentagon. Eric Schmidt, who is no longer CEO of Google or Alphabet, but who remains a technical advisor and board member at Google’s parent company Alphabet, claims to recuse himself of all information about Google AI projects for the Pentagon, because he also chairs the DoD’s Innovation Advisory Board.
Schmidt’s central role in this story underscores controversy about Google’s close relationship to the US military. In 2013, Julian Assange penned an essay highlighting Google’s sympathy for the US military empire in his essay, The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’– a criticism of Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s co-authored book, The New Digital Age.
In 2015, Schmidt hosted Henry Kissinger for a fireside chat at Google. He introduced Kissinger as a “foremost expert on the future of the physical world, how the world really works” and stated Kissinger’s “contributions to America and the world are without question.”
For many, Henry Kissinger’s “contributions” are drenched in the blood of the Global South. Declassified documents show that during the Vietnam/Indochina War, Kissinger, then a national security advisor, transmitted Nixon’s orders to General Alexander Haig: use “anything that flies on anything that moves” in Cambodia. According to a study by Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan (Director of Genocide Studies at Yale University), the United States dropped more tons of bombs on Cambodia than all of the Allies during World War II combined. Cambodia, they conclude, may be the most bombed country in history. By all reason, Kissinger should be tried for genocide.
Carpet bombing Cambodia is just one of many crimes carried out by Dr. Kissinger. During his time in government, he bolstered “moderate” white settler-colonial forces in Southern Africa to subvert the black liberation struggle for independence and self-determination. The US deemed Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress and other, less-recognized black liberation groups as “terrorist” and “communist” threats to US interests. The apartheid regime subjugated the black majority not only inside South Africa, but in brutal wars across the border in countries like Angola and Mozambique. More than 500,000 Africans died in Angola alone.
US corporations profited from business in the region, and provided white supremacists the arms, vehicles, energy resources, financial support and computer technology used to systematically oppress black people. IBM was a primary culprit, supplying the apartheid state with the bulk of computers used to denationalize the black African population and administer the state, banks, police, intelligence and military forces.
On April 6, 2018, Kissinger welcomed one of today’s new tech leaders, Eric Schmidt, to keynote the annual Kissinger Conference at Yale University. This year’s theme was Understanding Cyberwarfare and Artificial Intelligence. After praising the ROTC and Ash Carter (both in attendance), Schmidt told the audience it is a “tremendous honor to be on the same stage as Dr. Kissinger, and we all admire him for all the reasons we all know.” In his speech, he spoke of how the US must develop AI to defend against today’s familiar adversaries: the “nasty” North Koreans, the Russians, the Chinese. A couple of Yale students were kicked out for protesting.
In decades past, human rights advocates famously challenged the development of technology for racial capitalism. Activists, including students and workers, pressured IBM, General Motors and other corporations to stop aiding and abetting apartheid and war.
Today, a new wave of technology is being tapped by military and police forces. IBM has partnered with the City of Johannesburg for early efforts at “smart” policing, while Africa and the Middle East are targets of the US drone empire. Activists advocating democracy and equality inside Africa and the Middle East are staunchly opposed to these developments.
The bi-partisan effort to police Trump-designated “shithole” countries with advanced weaponry has Big Tech on its side. Google’s involvement with Project Maven constitutes active collaboration in this endeavor.
An activist campaign about Silicon Valley’s collaboration with the US military could be unfolding. However, it’s going to take grassroots pressure across the world to make technology work for humanity.
Michael Kwet is a Visiting Fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School.